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morality, science

Morality is in the Brain

It may seem trite to say, but morality is in our brains.  A recent experiment at MIT has shown rather conclusively that a certain area of the brain is instrumental in making moral judgments.  When electrical stimulation was used to disrupt the functioning of this region, subjects had significant difficulty determining the moral value of actions where harm was intended but not done, such as attempted poisoning.

In truth, we’ve known for some time that morality and the brain are intrinsically linked.  Plenty of people with brain damage have had wholesale changes to their sense of right and wrong, and many have become downright amoral.  But this study has given us more specific information on exactly which parts of the brain are involved in specific kinds of moral judgments.

This line on inquiry highlights the growing mountain of evidence against the concept of a “soul.”  We know that “consciousness” is dependent on the brain. We now have evidence that there is no magical “moral soul” that somehow transcends the brain.  We have strong evidence that personality type is largely genetic.  What is left for the soul to do?

It’s not an insignificant question.  If personality, morality, perception, and cognition are all functions of the brain, it becomes difficult to talk of the importance of the soul.  Particularly when we discuss “salvation” or “eternal life,” we run into some problems.  If the soul doesn’t contain any of our personality, how can we speak meaningfully about “our soul” continuing on after death?

Of course, the theist can always retreat to the position that the soul magically “captures” our personality at the exact moment of our death.  And as always, there’s not really much we can say to that.  How does one refute the claim that something exists which does not impact the physical universe in any way, and only has an impact in a magical world which also has no impact on our world at all?

For reasonable thinking people, there shouldn’t be any need to refute the claim, or even consider it seriously.  That’s the beauty of science.  As we learn more and more about the science of being human, the claims of religion become less and less meaningful, to the point that there’s no sense in taking any of them seriously.



2 thoughts on “Morality is in the Brain

  1. I am a firm believer that all manner of experience is a matter of electric firings and chemical mixtures in the brain. Sooo, my brain went a bit off topic in my response…

    When I was in high school I knew some boys who had a car accident. One died, one forgot everything and the other confided in me that he had changed. He felt he wanted to do bad things. He didn’t understand things any more. He remembered his old self like a dream, but things were not funny anymore. He said things were getting worse and it was beyond his control. He was going to be institutionalized. He knew he would never see me again. AND he was right. He knew that he had CHANGED. It was an eerie conversation for a 16 year old to have. Too bad that was so many years ago. It is likely there was little help for him even though he was capable of understanding there was a difference. Drugs and confinement were his likely fate. Praise science that someday this story will never have to happen again.

    “Of course, the theist can always retreat to the position that the soul magically “captures” our personality at the exact moment of our death.” Which part gets to go? I have changed so much and I regret none of it – I want to take each and every mistake and accomplishment, every sadness and every joy… which “me” gets captured?

    Posted by PaigeB | March 30, 2010, 9:52 pm
  2. A great example, Paige! How can “I” continue to exist after death when a head injury can irreversibly change who “I” am? Does this not irrefutably demonstrate that personality resides in the brain itself, not in some magical “ether” that floats away upon death?

    Posted by JennyD | April 1, 2010, 11:21 pm

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